My thoughts on someone else’s thoughts about writers’ thoughts.
I picked up Helen LaKelly Hunt’s book Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance because of the last tag line in the title: “Five Spirited and Spiritual Women Throughout History.” Spirited women!
On the back of the book, the synopsis asks the question, “Why do so many women of faith have such a strong aversion to feminism? And why do so many feminists have an ardent mistrust of religion?” I resound with that second question. I do believe that my faith enriches my feminism. Helen LaKelly Hunt, through her thoughts on five females figures, is offering a challenge for a life of wholeness, to live a life that finds strength in vulnerability.
Throughout the book, Hunt looks at five different women and the contributions they have made to faith and feminism. She looks at five different areas of life and how these women provide insight into these five areas: pain, shadow, voice, action, communion.
I found the book inspiring and engaging, but I mostly enjoyed, or rather needed, the chapters on pain and shadow.
1.) Pain: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
At some point in school or in life, everyone has read or seen one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. She was a transcendental poet. In it’s simplest form, transcendental poetry sought to show the good in humanity and in nature and the corruption of institutions. Some speculate that Dickinson had some horrible emotional experience at school that drove her to stay home, and some speculate that she lived with the crippling pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Either way, her pain was very real and stayed with her constantly. So why is it that Dickinson and her poetry is chosen by Hunt to show the pain of life? Hunt states that “Emily Dickinson’s life teaches us that embracing the pain in our lives can be the doorway to deeper meaning and purpose” (24). Furthermore, Hunt writes that “Emily did not allow . . . hopelessness to deaden her feelings. Instead, she used it to deepened her experience of grief . . . her poems become a celebration of feeling … Emily understood that pain and joy are eternally mixed–and that each can be access through the other” (34).
This paradox of joy and pain is true. Her poetry is able to see through the every-day busyness and see life for what it truly is, whether it be a dark, lonely night or a bird bathing in a puddle. As Hunt says, “Emily’s poetry charts an evolution from avoiding pain to claiming and being defined by it. Pain shapes us, breaking us open so that we can reconfigure ourselves in a way that more deeply mirrors our authentic self” (36). Pain allows us to cut away all of the trim and masks that we wear and to be our authentic, true selves. Pain cuts to the core, whether it be physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental. By having Dickinson as an example, women, and all humans, can see an example of how pain allows us to not only see ourselves more clearly, but to also see those around us more clearly. Pain creates empathy and understanding, something that Jesus was famous for during his time on earth.
I think that if Dickinson was alive today, she would appreciate the song “The Valley Song” by Jars of Clay: “I will sing of your mercy that leads me through valleys of sorrow to rivers of joy.”
2.) Shadow: Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
Ever since I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark, I have had a new appreciation for shadows and darkness as a part of life. While in a Spanish convent, Teresa struggled with the desire to have a social life (something that was common in nunneries at the time because of the wealth and power of the church) and the desire to truly love God completely, away from distractions. In her struggles, she revolutionized how people pray and is still taught as a Doctor of the Catholic Church. The struggles she encountered trying to accept herself and then figuring out how to live a fulfilling life caused her to explore her shadows. She never shied away from admitting her flaws and owning her darkness. As Hunt writes, “Shadow characteristics can become detriments or assets. It depends on whether they remain hidden and examined or are accepted with vulnerability. Teresa’s story illuminates the path of courageous self-acceptance that leads to the open heart” (53).
Vulnerability yet determination to create change. Teresa was aware of herself, the bright and the dark. Knowing herself, she was able to find the confidence to create positive change while maintaining her belief that she should not forget her shadows and how they are a part of her true self.
In the remaining chapters of the book, Hunt tells the story of Sojourner Truth, a former slave, who learned how to voice her opinions and sought equality for all people; Lucretia Mott, an influential leader within the Quakers and in the USA, who took action to ensure that women were treated equally, even down to her marriage which was a true partnership during a time when most wives were repressed; and Dorothy Day, whose relationship with God came through her humanitarian work, who valued community and communion with others. All of these women were heroes of faith and feminism who inspired Hunt and I appreciated reading Hunt’s own journey to wholeness by learning from amazing women who struggled before.
From Hunt’s book I am reminded that in our lives, we need to remember that we are complicated. We need to spend time listening to ourselves so that we can live a whole life. We have bright spots and dark shadows; we have chances to speak and to act; we have opportunities to join and live in community with those around us. In order to live a full life, we need to accept and love who we are and be inspired by those around us. Being open to an authentic life leads to authentic actions, as shown in the lives of these five amazing women.
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
“The point of telling our stories, even if only to ourselves, is to help us resurrect the parts we have buried. When we unearth them, even if it’s difficult, we can integrate them into our sense of who we are. Often in our buried self our true power lies.” (Helen LaKelly Hunt)